TRENTON — Under the cover of a budget address scheduled for delivery by Gov. Chris Christie’s just moments from now, the Senate Judiciary Committee quietly passed a long-awaited but controversial appointment to the state’s Pineland Commission at their contentious hearing today.
Robert Barr, president of Democratic Club of Ocean City and municipal leader in Ocean City for Cape May County Democrats, was approved as a nominee to the South Jersey council by a 8-4-1 vote. It was the third time the committee had consider Barr’s appointment in less than three months, having twice before refused to approve it.
Critics argued Barr’s passage today was made largely in part by the absence of state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-21), who had helped hold up Barr’s nomination by voting against the appointment previously. Voting in Lesniak’s place was state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1)), who opponents of Barr argued was subbed-in specifically to help push the nomination through.
“We can’t separate Mr. Barr from Mr. Van Drew,” said Georgina Shanley, a resident of Ocean City and representative of Citizens United for Renewable Energy, who called Barr a “loyal, steady friend” of the Democratic senator.
At the crux of critics’ concerns is planned construction on a 22-mile gas pipeline through the heart of the Pinelands, one of the country’s few designated “biospheres,” according to conservationists. The project has been voted down by the 15-member commission several times, most recently with the help of commissioner Robert Jackson.
But critics worry that the appointment of Barr — who would replace Jackson on the panel — is a political maneuver by proponents of the pipeline to tip the commission’s makeup in favor of the project. While the pipeline has faced opposition from four former governors, both Gov. Chris Christie and Van Drew support it.
Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey, called the appointment a “bare-knuckled attempt by the Christie administration to stack the commission in his favor.”
“This is not just about the pipeline, that’s just one issue, but the future of the Pinelands in South Jersey,” added Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who said he’d received a letter from Lesniak saying he supports Jackson’s work on the commission and continues to support him.
“Our concern is instead of basing the Pinelands on sound science it’s going to be based on political science,” he added.
Senators who voted against the nomination — including state Senators Nia Gill (D-34), Kip Bateman (R-16), Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Brian Stack (D-33), and chairman Nick Scutari (D-22), — expressed concern over the message today’s vote would send for future nominations. Namely, that if a commission member bucks Christie’s will, as Jackson did, they will be replaced.
“I’m not going to sit by and while the governor says to another person sit down and shut up,” Weinberg said.
Gill likened the situation to Christie’s move four years ago to replace Judge John Wallace on the Superior Court bench, calling this another instance of minority representation on an overwhelmingly-white body being diminished.
“If we were principle enough to stand against Judge Wallace, we should be principled enough to stand against this nomination,” Gill said.
“This is about power, this is about saying to people if you disagree with governor Christie, you will be removed,” she added. “And in that removal, it will set a tone for all others.”
State Senator Bob Smith (D-19), also chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee, agreed with detractors’ complaints but ultimately abstained from a vote on the nomination.
Presiding over the hearing was Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), who moved about the room during testimonies speaking with committee members. Sweeney is major Democratic player in South Jersey with close relationships to Christie and to fellow Democratic power broker George Norcross III, and is said to also support the pipeline project.
Van Drew, for his part, defended his relationship with Barr, calling him a man of character and experience.
“I admire Bob Barr. I wish there where more Bob Barr’s in the world, frankly,” Van Drew said.